Say What? A Green Funder's Quest for Environmentally Friendly Highways

The American highway system pretty much stands in opposition to the very concept of sustainability. But one foundation is championing the idea of a green highway, much like its namesake CEO did for the idea of a green corporation.  

The thought of a highway is like fingernails on a chalkboard for environmentalists. Choked with exhaust from a never-ending torrent of single-occupancy vehicles, they carve up natural and city environments, and are suited for cars and only cars.

But what if a highway didn’t have to be like that? The Ray C. Anderson Foundation, named after the late CEO who became a champion for sustainability in industry, is turning a 16-mile stretch of Georgia asphalt into a test case for whether a highway can be carbon neutral, safe, and pleasant. 

The Mission Zero Corridor, one of a few big initiatives by this newly expanded foundation, seeks to be an educational tool and a living laboratory for a future highway that could one day result in zero carbon emissions, pollution, and deaths—the long-term goal is no impact on the environment.

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The concept of Mission Zero actually comes from Ray Anderson himself, who was CEO of one of the world’s largest manufacturers of modular carpet, before he passed away in 2011. In 1994, Anderson had a revelation after reading the book Ecology of Commerce, and dedicated himself to making his company reach net-zero environmental impact by 2020. He was often profiled as the CEO with an environmental conscience, featured prominently in the 2003 documentary The Corporation

When Anderson passed away, he left his estate to the foundation he created in the 1990s with no further instructions. This came as an “amazing surprise” to his family, which runs the foundation, said John Lanier, executive director and Anderson’s grandson, in an email. “When we first ‘relaunched’ roughly a year after Ray's death, we were just ‘infants’ in this space. The first two years were spent crawling, learning how to be philanthropists.”  

Since then, the foundation has taken on a few big initiatives—a $5 million pledge to Georgia Tech for a Center for Sustainable Business, $1.5 million for the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, and the Mission Zero Corridor project. 

You can see how the dream of a green highway could, in execution, devolve into a plain old road with a few wind turbines on it. But in the first year or so of the program, the team is cooking up some pretty radical plans that actually seek to recast what a highway is. 

In 2014, the foundation funded the Georgia Conservancy, in coordination with the Georgia Tech School of Architecture and architects from Atlanta’s Perkins+Will, to conduct a study that outlines a vision for the corridor. The resulting report targeted a handful of focal points, including pollution remediation, saving and generating resources, wildlife conservation, human safety, and even cultural exchange. 

The challenges are substantial. As the report states, “The highway was engineered as an inflexible, totalizing, and neutralizing system: completely segregated from interaction with its surroundings.” 

Some of the ideas floated by the study include:  

  • Wildlife bridges and wildlife detectors to repair the integrity of fragmented habitats
  • Rubberized asphalt that generates electricity when vehicles travel over it
  • Multimodal uses, including tiers for other forms of transit
  • Solar-powered electric car-charging stations
  • Solar paneled roads, canopies
  • Roadside solar or biofuel farms
  • Art, pedestrian bridges, parks, and noise barriers to make the abutting land more pleasant 

And a bunch more. For the next step, UK-based firm Innovia is reviewing different opportunities, and evaluating viability and scalability, which will lead to a strategy to move forward. 

It’s hard to imagine such a project being extended to our sprawling highway system, but the focus on viability and scalability is particularly interesting, signaling that it won’t just be a stunt. If it works, the corridor could be a petri dish for other transportation and planning projects.